Following Friday Morning Outreach at Catholic Charities in Santa Rosa, Kevin Connolly would ask volunteers how many conversations they had with the people they had encountered.
Statistics were gathered — how much coffee was distributed, how many clothes were
handed out, how much oatmeal was served?
However, attaching a number to the personal
connections between volunteers and people experiencing homelessness was a form of reflection, a reminder of the joy in a morning of good work and the mutual respect, dignity and compassion between the servant and the served.
Kevin asked each volunteer how many “brief’ interactions they had — a hello, a good morning, a let me know how I can help — then he asked for “meaningful” interactions — conversations about struggles on the streets, swapping tales and laughter, helping someone find just the right shirt or pair of shoes.
I always thought Kevin was conservative in reporting his own numbers. Every conversation with Kevin was meaningful. When he looked a person in the eyes, they became the most important person on earth. A grandfather, retired financial planner and Catholic Charities board member, Kevin was a busy man, but never too busy to stop and bless a person with his easy Irish charm.
Kevin suffered a stroke while meditating at a Cursillo Catholic retreat. Over the next two weeks he dutifully prepared his family for his departure. He died Feb. 27, as he lived — peacefully and prayerfully, surrounded by family — a good death for a good man who lived a good life.
In the Rule of St. Benedict, the 6th-Century Saint insisted that “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.”
When I arrived at Catholic Charities I felt nervous, out of my element, worried that I might not be up to the job of starting a volunteer mentoring program. Kevin and his wife Honora were among the first people to greet me. We talked in the lobby for more than an hour. They were curious about me. They asked about my family and the place where I grew up and the places I had lived and travelled to over the years, and what gave meaning to my life. They were interested in the work I had done and the work I had come to Catholic Charities to do. Honora was already rattling off a list of people I could recruit as mentors, and Kevin smiled at me, a friendly warning that I was about to enter the hurricane of kindness that is his wife. Kevin and I talked about our shared Irish heritage and they both wondered if in their travels they had visited the Benedictine Abbey in Missouri where I had worked.
When we parted, it occurred to me, I had always known Kevin and Honora. We just hadn’t met before.
I experienced a couple who effortlessly extended the radical hospitality of St. Benedict.
Honora, fueled by optimism and exasperation, seemed capable of willing an entire community to good works. Kevin walked a few steps behind, smiling with contentment as she burst through walls, his ember of patience and competence and humor a counterbalance, recognizing that change comes in hard, daily work and planning, and quiet, simple acts of kindness. Kevin and Honora gave me confidence about what lie ahead. I certainly wouldn’t be doing it alone.
Once in a while I come upon a person who has something I want. It’s in the way they are present, comfortable with themselves and with others. They walk through a day trying to change the world without letting the enormity of it overwhelm them. They suffer with those who suffer and fight against injustice, but they do it with hope not anger. They find joy and refuge in gratitude.
I want what Kevin had. I dream of making people feel like he made me and so many others feel.
“When I was a kid, I learned about angels and saints,” Kevin once said. “I knew I couldn’t be an angel, but I thought there might be a chance I could become a saint. So that’s what I’ve tried to do.”
The Catholic Church has saints not to be worshipped, but rather to provide something to strive for. They are people who despite all the foibles, sinfulness and struggles of the human condition found some glimmer of holiness. They have something we want.
As a Catholic, of course Kevin strived for holiness. In the end, what else is there? Whether he ever achieved it is beside the point. Progress, not perfection was his expectation for himself, for his family and for his community.
I imagine Kevin waking each morning and asking God for the strength to do his will. He had no illusion that poverty and homelessness would be ended in his lifetime if ever. But he had no choice but to do the work. I imagine him each evening thanking God for the strength he sought.
Change happens because we see something in other people–experience, wisdom, serenity–that we want. Entire communities are changed when enough people want something better– something more compassionate, more nurturing, more neighborly.
The work of Catholic Charities is deeply rooted in Catholic Social Teaching. Some bishops call it the “Church’s best kept secret.” Respect for the dignity of each human being, a clear preference for the poor, a call to participate in community, protection of workers over profits, these are some of the principles.
“Demands involving the distribution of wealth, concern for the poor and human rights cannot be suppressed under the guise of creating a consensus on paper or a transient peace for a contented minority,” Pope Francis wrote. “The dignity of the human person and the common good rank higher than the comfort of those who refuse to renounce their privileges. When these values are threatened, a prophetic voice must be raised.”
Prophets proclaim the truth. They often are persecuted or overlooked for it. Some proclaim this truth in the town square with great words. Some proclaim it one person at a time, not with great rhetoric but with quiet service.
When I talked to Kevin, I felt joy, peace, calm. I knew that somehow things were going to work out.
I also felt challenged to be better, to experience his understated confidence, to allow myself to be humbled, to know Kevin’s truth, his holiness.
Sounds like a saint to me.